Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Tuesday Night Club: Jane and Dagobert

As it’s the first month of a new year, the Tuesday Night bloggers, a group of crime fiction fans doing a themed entry each week, have chosen ‘firsts’, a nice wide-ranging topic.Firsts logo

As ever, Bev at My Reader’s Block did the splendid logo.

And Kate at Cross-Examining Crime is collecting the links this month.

In Week 1 I looked at the first Dr Fell mystery by John Dickson Carr, Hag’s Nook

In Week 2 I blogged on the first book by American writer Mary McMullen.

In Week 3 I went back in time to look at a classic of German literature, Kleist’s Marquise of O.

In week 4 I chose to feature the first appearance of Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver.

This week I took the opportunity to read the first book in Delano Ames’ Jane and Dagobert mystery series.

She Shall Have Murder by Delano Ames

published 1948

She Shall Have Murder 4She Shall have Murder 1

[Jane has been caught at the murder scene with her boyfriend and fellow-sleuth, Dagobert, who is in disguise.]

I was aware that the tableau presented to our junior partner’s eyes needed a little explanation. Miss Hamish, a picture of respectable legal efficiency in her neat tailored suit, black gloves, and restrained hat, made a reasonably conventional figure in the foreground. What did not fit into the scene so well was the unshaven workman sprawled on the bed beside me, flicking cigarette ash over the rich red velvet counterpane in the vague direction of his muddy boots.

I couldn’t think of any very convincing explanation for this, so I said nothing.

commentary: I’ve read, and blogged on, several of this series, and was glad to have a good excuse to read the first one. My good friend Tracy over at Bitter Tea and Mystery reviewed this one last year, and I am very jealous of her mapback edition showing all the London locations of the book. (Col of the Criminal Library read a different Ames book, and said that was enough.) Apparently, She Shall Have Murder was made into a film in 1950 – it sounds like a real British B-movie, and seems to be impossible to get hold of. I would love to see it.

Because I enjoyed this book hugely – in fact more than subsequent entries in the series. Later works have Jane and Dagobert travelling around and encountering murder in exotic locations – the South of France, the Pyrenees, New Mexico. This one was very firmly grounded in post-War London, and I thought the setting was knowledgeable and well-done. Jane works in a solicitor’s office - it’s not clear what her job is, a junior clerk perhaps. She is definitely superior to the typist, and seems to have quite a lot of responsibility. I said about another of the books:
Jane is supposedly writing a murder story based on the events in the book, and this was rather meta and very annoying.
And this was true of this one too, you’d think someone would have told Ames to ditch this idea along the way.

There is a murder, and it looks as though one of the people in the office must be responsible. The characters are well-defined and well-dressed (I particularly liked the precocious and shady office boy in his wideboy outfits) and have endearing faults and imperfections. There’s a nice Freudian interpretation of what people forget… I wondered if there was any significance in the fact that every time Jane asks for something to drink she is given something other than what she asks for.

And talking of drink – recently on the blog we had a most enjoyable discussion of roadhouses. Some of us (you know who you are, Chrissie) admitted to a ridiculous and most unrealistic pang for the idealized glamour, which we know is probably imaginary…

Well there’s one here:
The Cairo Club on the Great West Road is a peculiarly garish roadhouse, frequented by men in sporty cars and girls with Veronica Lake hairdos. They have the noisiest dance-band for its size in the UK, a real slap-up soda fountain, and brilliant neon lighting.
-where Jane and Dagobert go for a double-date with a pair of suspects. Splendid stuff, although the soda fountain sounds an unlikely touch. The décor of the club is very satisfyingly described:
Green Egyptian columns with their spangled lotus-leaf capitals picked out in pillar-box red and tiny hexagons of mirror glass, which supported a ceiling of startling blue in which real stars appeared to twinkle.
I thought Ames on the whole did a female narrator very well, I was impressed by some of her gendered comments, despite occasional pre-feminist moments, very much of their time.

It was interesting to compare the working life of women with my Tuesday Night Firsts book set in a NY ad agency around the same time, Mary McMullen’s Stranglehold. And I’m very fond of Michael Gilbert’s 1950 Smallbone Deceased, set in a law office and also featuring some good female characters.

Jane’s outfit above (‘Miss Hamish’ is her referring to herself in the third person) probably looked more like the left-hand one, which is from 1951 so a little later, but I liked the right hand picture as truly representing Jane the sleuth – it’s from 1949. Both from Clover Vintage Tumblr.

Jane goes out wearing her ‘Molyneux-type’ evening dress – meaning a cheap knock-off of the designer’s work. So this is a picture of the real thing, from 1947:

She Shall Have Murder 2

Patricia Ferguson’s wonderful Aren’t We Sisters a few years ago (set in the 1930s) featured a Molyneux suit like the one below, along with some discussion of whether it was real or a knock-off…

She Shall have Murder 3

I realize I haven’t said much about murder, plot or investigation – they were all perfectly fine and unmemorable (I’m sure I’ll be able to read this again in a few years without remembering who did it.) If anything I’m more interested in one unresolved mystery: Jane and Dagobert are not married, and live in separate bed-sitting rooms in the same house. Twice I thought there was a very strong (but not spelled out) implication that they were sleeping together…

Monday, 30 January 2017

The Plague and I by Betty MacDonald

published 1948


On January 6th the charge nurse invited me to the Pines moving picture show, but the invitation [was] thickly encased in rules.

She said in part: “You are on the list to go to the movie tonight. You may wear makeup, if you wish, but you may not talk or laugh. You are to be ready by 7 o’clock, in your robe and slippers. You will be called for by a male [attendant]… but you are not to speak or to laugh with your escort. Your temperature and pulse will be taken as soon as you return to bed and if your temperature or your pulse has increased you will not be allowed to go to the next moving picture show.”…

After supper I was so excited my heart pounded like a jungle drum … I smeared on lipstick, wet my hair with drinking water and thought “This is living!”

I thought the picture itself rather a tactless choice for the joyous entertainment of patients in a tuberculosis sanatorium. It was Greta Garbo in Camille.

commentary: Two major pointers made me read this book. I have recently read Dark Circle by Linda Grant, and Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, both set among TB patients – and then my good friend Lissa Evans talked about this book in a Guardian feature about funny books. (By chance, Lissa’s new book, the excellent Wed Wabbit,  was on the blog last week.)

And now, excitingly, I think this may be the first book ever that Lissa and I disagree on! It is an amazing, gripping book, and one I found hard to put down, but I did not find it funny, I found it terrifying and affecting and sad and desperate, but only occasionally did it make me laugh.

This is what Lissa said in the Guardian:
Hovering between loneliness, terror and utter boredom, MacDonald writes about her seclusion in a way this is painfully, barkingly funny… Her style is completely her own, the sprawling sentences packed with anecdote, incident, bang-on simile and throwaway wit -it’s like hearing a conversation between someone who keeps forgetting to breathe and another who keeps asking ‘what happened next?’
And that is an excellent description. MacDonald has lightly fictionalized her own experience in a sanatorium near Seattle in the late 1930s, writing it as a memoir. As I had learned from the other two books, these hospitals created their own worlds in their attempts to help, with their own rules and bizarre & Byzantine systems.

When MacDonald first arrives she is on complete bedrest, and that means she can’t talk, laugh, sit up, wear makeup, read, write or ‘get excited’ or interact with the opposite sex [the extract above is when she is a long way on the road to recovery]. The staff enforce the rules rigidly – which is fair enough as they believe they will cure or at least help the patients. But there is a Kafka-esque feel to it – no-one keeps the patients informed, it is thought best that they don’t know what is going on with their prognosis and treatment except moments before any change.

It’s like a giant old-fashioned boarding school, but without even the vestige of fairness you might find there, with a touch of Maoist China: everything is described in terms of rewards and punishments, so, as above, if your temperature or pulse changes you are ‘in trouble’. And of course the right results do not necessarily go to the ‘nice’ people: everything is quite random. The patients are constantly reminded that if they don’t keep to the rules they should go home and leave their bed free for someone who IS worth helping. MacDonald is forever being told off for her attitude, for asking too many questions, for ‘talking French’ (a discussion of cookery terms).

To some extent she believes that the staff are right. ‘The Medical Director… said constantly that people with TB were ungrateful, stupid, unco-operative and unworthy’ she says, while explaining that he was in fact incredibly kind and helpful to the patients.

I found the book riveting, and felt it documented something that has gone now completely. And there were funny moments – I loved the ‘fat little woman who wore pink-flowered sleepers [pyjamas] and looked like a piggy bank.’

But if I want to be amused I will re-read one of Lissa’s books.

Betty MacDonald wrote a massive bestseller in 1945, The Egg and I, about her life on a chicken farm in a rural spot in Washington State – it IS a very funny book, and one I should write about sometime. I lived in Seattle at one time, so both Egg and Plague had a very welcome familiar feel. My daughter and I also enjoyed Betty MacDonald’s children’s book Nancy and Plum – blogpost here.

Small pictures from a sanatorium brochure. Text advert from a different brochure. The poster is part of a WPA Art Project from the late 1930s, from the Library of Congress.

The book La Dame aux Camellias is here on the blog.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Dress Down Sunday: Mosaic by GB Stern

3rd part of the Rakonitz chronicles

published 1930


Mosaic DD 1

[The 1920s: Tante Berthe Czelovar is entertaining young relations from England in her Paris flat]

“It is your fashion in England not to eat,” remarked Berthe, “and so you do not need corsets. But… I am well corseted. That is because I have always my own special Madame Girovan, and she is a genius! She reads my figure like a book. She understands it. She thinks and thinks about it at night, at day, and then at last she creates for me – but wait, I will show you. Between us, after all, there need not be any gene. We are all of one family.”

And Berthe showed them as much of Madame Girovan’s creation as was possible without actually disrobing herself.

“One pulls it so, and one pulls here, and then you see here it fastens, and from above, where support is needed… and the brassiere, you must adjust it so. Can you see? Here – if you put your head close up to me and look down – no? But I want you to see. It is wonderful…”

Mosaic DD 2

commentary: I could do months’ worth of entries on these books – I could do a months’ worth just on corsets, which feature a lot.

Earlier in Mosaic, Anastasia (the Matriarch from an earlier book) comes to Paris with young Toni, who is to be found a job – either as a corsetiere, or to learn to sort and match pearls. In fact she could do both – she can do pearls ‘in her spare time; for it goes along very well with a corsetiere interest – they are both decollete.’ Toni, always disinclined to do as she is told, will naturally do none of these things.

We also learn how Berthe (and then, under her influence, Freda) gets ready to go out:
Berthe completely finished and ready from the chin upwards… would be standing completely naked in front of the long glass, impressively moulding herself into her corset… Freda, wide-eyed, standing by… 

For years afterwards, when Paris was a glitter fading from the horizon of Freda’s memory, a dying glitter of silver and rose, even then Freda still brought an alien, a bizarre whiff of the continent into her life at home… by first doing her hair, then putting on her hat, and finally her corsets. [Her sisters] Melanie and Gisela could hardly bear to look on at such an affectation. It was the last of Berthe; the last Paris habit to die.
Berthe is a monster – an entertaining, hilarious, totally over-the-top yet totally believable character. She has her own view of the world and is determined to get her own way. Is it significant that ‘Bertha’ was originally what the B in GB Stern stood for? (She changed it to Bronwen.) This book tells her story from the 1880s through to the late 1920s. She is part of the complex tale of the Rakonitz and Czelovar families: the intertwining stories of marriages and deaths and births and love affairs and – always – strong women and fabulous clothes (described, I am happy to say, in great detail). The women are often unreasonable and even cruel, and they are fascinating. The men fade into insignificance in comparison. The women of the family are forever trying to impose an iron will on each other – but the results are often unexpected.

Stern writes so well about families – about their fights and their making up, about the small hurts and insults, and the love and affection that eventually will win out. And the books are hilariously, laugh out loud funny – I find her style endlessly attractive.

And I am, always, endlessly grateful to Hilary McKay (someone else who writes so well about families) for telling me about the books. There are multiple earlier entries on the first two books, The Matriarch and A Deputy was King.

One picture is from a 1922 yearbook.

The other is an advert from a collection of the programmes of the Boston Symphony (available, wonderfully, online via Flickr) – appropriately enough, as Berthe is fond of telling everyone how musical she is and how successful she could have been (‘I wanted to give them my Erl-king’).

Friday, 27 January 2017

The Problem of the Wire Cage by John Dickson Carr

published 1939

Problem of the Wire Cage

She sat on a couch at one end of the long dusky drawing-room. Beside her on the table had been set out a tea-service with tea now cold and biscuits untouched.

Hugh Rowland never forgot how she looked at that moment: the thick fair hair, darkish at the edges and bobbed below the ears; the light blue eyes, with a trick of looking up sideways and smiling; the fine lines of the body, which was just slender enough to escape being too well developed, for she was small. She wore a sleeveless white blouse, with white tennis shorts and tennis shoes; her bare legs were curled up under her on the chintz-covered couch. But she was not smiling now. Hugh Rowland felt her looking steadily at him, warning him.

Possibly because the day was sultry, emotions were growing sultry too.

commentary: I don’t know what the weather’s like where you are, but it is freezing and icy here, so a book about a summer-y evening’s sultry tennis seemed cheering. (And if you are in Australia, you can enjoy your good weather and take the blogpost as a tribute to the Australian Open.)

This is the opening passage of the book: there is a love triangle featuring the young people above and another man, one who is not very nice. There will be some very bad-tempered tennis played, then everyone will depart, and soon afterwards one person will be found dead. The body will be inside the cage-like tennis court, and the clear footsteps leading up to the body will suggest that either Brenda (above) is guilty, or else it is an impossible crime.

John Dickson Carr is the King of the locked room mystery, and this is him almost playing with his audience – no creepy tower, no sinister cell-like room, no impossible lock. This time his closed space is as outdoorsy and as light and as airy as it could be. But he has still made it impossible – and the explanation when it finally arrived actually made me laugh out loud in admiration. (It is a ludicrously unlikely murder method, impossible to believe in, but if you start on that with Carr, his entire wonderful oeuvre would disappear.)

Instead, you can enjoy the strange characters and relationships in this one – there were some very odd people in very odd ways, Carr was lavish with his subsidiaries here. It did seem that the second murder – in a music-hall theatre during rehearsals – was both unnecessary, not worked out properly, and thrown away. The setting and personalities could have made a whole other book.

Late on, Hugh Rowland’s father is introduced – a wonderful character, who again could have supported a whole book. (He reminded me of Charles Ryder’s father in Evelyn Waugh’s revered Brideshead Revisited.) On being told the worst – either Hugh or Hugh's beloved are suspects – his immediate reaction is:
‘We will send your mother to the north of Scotland. That is the furthest we can send her without a passport… There will be ructions, Hugh. Yes, I foresee ructions.’
When he has heard even more:
‘I am not sure that the north of Scotland is quite remote enough for your mother’s holiday. After reflection, I should suggest some place such as Tanganyika or the Arctic Circle.’
There is also an odd-job man called Angus MacWhirter, which worried at me until I remembered that that happens to be the name of a key character in Agatha Christie’s Towards Zero, published five years later, in 1944.

There are certainly some problems with the book, and one of them is that according to the facts as given, Brenda spent her early 20s as a pupil at a girls’ school. She is now around 27, and ‘Only five years ago… I put her for nearly four years at the best school in England, which irked her because she was older than the other girls.’ Irksome seems inadequate as a description.

The photo is from the state library of Florida, and can be found on Flickr. And if you’re thinking ‘well that’s not tennis shorts’ my justification is that Carr himself forgets about the shorts, and later refers to Brenda’s ‘white frock’.

After the solution was revealed, I went back and read the relevant pages, and it seems to me that Carr has not entirely played fair with his wording – but obv this is less important than tennis frocks and schoolgirl years. And none of these factors affected my enjoyment of the book.

There are many, many entries on John Dickson Carr on the blog, including a Tuesday Night Club set – click on the label below to see them.

I picked this one up after reading a post by Martin Edwards over at doyouwriteunderyourownname – his review is recommended and helpful.

A tennis party is key in another murder story – Georgette Heyer’s 1953 Detection Unlimited.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Wed Wabbit by Lissa Evans

published 2017

Wed Wabbit 2

[Fidge finds herself in a land of toys]

The train hurtled past, puffing neat little balls of smoke. Its engine was a glossy black and the carriages bottle green, with brass fittings. The whole thing shone as if it had been painted and polished ten minutes before, but it wasn’t the newness of the train that left Fidge staring; it was the glimpse of the passengers. They’d sped by too fast for her to see them properly, but the impression she had was of . . . greyness. Total greyness, without a single speck of colour.

Wed Wabbit 1

[She tries to work out the best thing to do]

Fact,’ she said, out loud. ‘I’m in the Land of Wimbley Woos.’ It was reassuring to hear her own voice, even if it wasn’t quite as firm as usual. ‘Fact: Yellows are timid, Blues arestrong and Greys are wise and rarely wrong. Fact: Green are daring, Pink give cuddles, Orange are silly and get in muddles. Fact: Purple Wimblies understand the past and future of their land. Fact: something’s gone wrong here and I need to free the Pink and get the whole thing sorted out as quickly as possible.

Because I have to get home and see my sister…’

commentary: I want my good friend Lissa Evans to write another book for adults (to go with Crooked Heart, and Their Finest Hour and a Half – film coming soon – and Spencer’s List) but until she does I can keep going with this, her latest children’s book, which, I have to admit, is a delight.

Fidge has a little sister, Minnie, who is in hospital. During a storm, Fidge gets lost in a world that is made up of Minnie’s favourite book, the Wimbley Woos, and Minnie’s favourite toys, including the eponymous Wed Wabbit. (It sometimes seems she may be inside Minnie’s mind, as Minnie lies unconscious.) She is accompanied by her least favourite cousin, Graham, who is scared of everything, and she needs to sort out the situation and get out safely, and she must find Wed Wabbit to take to hospital for Minnie. But that’s not going to be easy – there are some dark goings-on in the land of Wimbley Woos, and Wed Wabbit is far from the soppy creature he sounds. He is more of a dictator, as it happens.

There are clues and puzzles, and Fidge, realizing that the situation is dire, has to come up with a plan to defeat Wabbit and his allies the Blues. Graham turns out to be more use than seemed likely, and some of the other toys pitch in. Finest of them all is Ella the Elephant, a Life Coach who must have been an actress first, and whose every (helpful and useful) remark is couched in terms of the utmost luvviedom and spiritual mumbo jumbo. She is a superstar, and should have her own series.
‘Thank you for everything!’ she heard Ella calling to the Purples. ‘Marvellous work. A five-star performance! The reviews will be fabulous!’ 

…Behind her, she could hear Ella panting. ‘Would you mind awfully, darlings, if we slowed down just a tiny bit? I’ve not been able to get to the gym for a while – terribly, terribly busy at work.’ 

Ahead of them, the huge gate swung open, and they were marched through into a courtyard, its walls hung with flaming torches. Shadows leaped and shrank across the stones. 

‘Gorgeous lighting,’ said Ella, breathing heavily. ‘Superdramatic.’

The book is very funny throughout – I loved this description of Graham:
He was large and pale, like a plant that has been heavily watered, but kept in the dark.
But it is also very tense, considering it is set in a version of toyland, and I am several multiples of the age of the target audience. There is a proper quest, danger along the way, our heroes and heroines are captured and mistreated… But (spoiler) all will end happily. There is a very funny running joke about the rather useless Pinks who just want to hug all the time, and this is used to perfect effect at the end.

Rabbit (not really sinister enough… ) from a 1920s book explaining how to draw to young people.

Picture of toy train set taken in a Prague Museum by Leif Jørgensen and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

TNC Firsts – the first appearance of Miss Maud Silver

As it’s the first month of a new year, the Tuesday NightFirsts logo bloggers, a group of crime fiction fans doing a themed entry each, we have chosen ‘firsts’, a nice wide-ranging topic.

As ever, Bev at My Reader’s Block did the splendid logo.

And Kate at Cross-Examining Crime is collecting the links this month.

In Week 1 I looked at the first Dr Fell mystery by John Dickson Carr, Hag’s Nook.

In Week 2 I blogged on the first book by American writer Mary McMullen.

In Week 3 I went back in time to look at a classic of German literature, Kleist’s Marquise of O.

This week I decided to investigate the first appearance of Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver. So with just a delicate cough and a rattle of my knitting needles, here we go:

Grey Mask

published 1928/29
Grey Mask

Margot went on walking, and the aimless thoughts kept on coming and going. The thick moisture that filled the air with fog began to condense and come down in rain. Soon she was very wet. The rain became heavier; it soaked through her blue serge coat and began to drop from the brim of her hat. The coat had a collar of grey fur. The rain collected on it and trickled down the back of her neck. Only that afternoon Margot had written to Stephanie that there was something frightfully romantic about being a penniless orphan. It didn’t feel a bit romantic now; it felt cold, and frightening, and desperately miserable…

The lamplight showed Margaret a girl with drenched fair hair hanging in wispy curls. The girl was very pretty indeed; even with a tear-stained face and limp hair she was verypretty. Her dark blue coat was beautifully cut, and drenched though it was, Margaret could both feel and see that the stuff had been expensive. It had a grey fox collar, draggled and discouraged-looking, but a fine skin for all that.

commentary: Miss Silver arrived fully formed in Grey Mask, with one interesting exception. She is an old lady who investigates, she’s marvellous, she coughs all the time and is knitting some socks. The only thing missing is there is no mention of her past as a governess – this must be first revealed in a later book.

She is quite daring and dashing, following people, and making an unauthorized (though not illegal – she has her reputation to think of) entry into a house. She has no fears about searching a house where a mad murderer might be on the loose.

The plot has a rather tiresome master-criminal (the Grey Mask himself) and an organization which specializes in nasty crimes, and the villainous members are all referred to by their numbers (for goodness sake…). This is rather reminiscent of the Agatha Christie books of the time, and to my surprise I started wondering if Wentworth was doing it better. No-one is quite as annoying as Tommy and Tuppence are…

There are several tropes which recur in many other of the Silver books. There is a young couple who parted just before they were due to wed – this is so frequent in the oeuvre (occasionally just after the wedding) that I wonder if it reflects something that happened to Wentworth. As ever, they have been kept apart from some combo of pride, honour and shame; as ever the whole thing could have been solved by a reasonable conversation; and as ever the gentle reader has no time for any of this. In this case, ‘a breath of scandal would kill someone’ but a) was not the jilting and broken engagement enough scandal to do the same? And b) this particular character seems spectacularly robust in every other way. And c) there never seems to be any idea that love will conquer, or that you might trust and rely on your affianced – that he or she is exactly whom you should be telling about whatever nightmare is descending.

We have a woman plunged into mourning wondering how she will look, will she suit black? – turns up in many a Wentworth book, but I always enjoy it anyway.

There are some silly-ass talkers and silly girls, and our heroine, Margaret, fears that the hero, Charles, will fall for a young girl – but of course he won’t. In this particular aspect the book resembles those Georgette Heyer Regency romances in which the sensible, sibling-like couple look after a young idiot, and eventually realize it’s each other they love. The silly girl, Margot, is actually quite an entertainment.

There is an interesting legal point about something called marriage by declaration – I had never heard of this, and you’d think that although I know little of marriage law, it would have come up in many other crime stories to inform me…

Miss Silver coughs 15 times by my calculation.

Margaret works in a hatshop, and one of her customers, who has no relation to the plot, says this:
I remember a most charming hat I had before the war, trimmed with shaded tulle and ostrich feathers. I wore it to the Deanery garden-party and it was much admired.
This is an older lady, and in a couple of paragraphs we realize that what she wants isn’t a new hat, it’s to be the young woman at a garden party again. A lot of Wentworth is full of cliché and stereotypes, written by numbers almost, but in just about every book there is at least one scene, or moment or conversation that is striking and memorable, charming or affecting, subtle and real.

I thought the ending was rather rushed – I wanted more detail of what had happened in the past and what was happening now. But overall, a good effort, and you can see there are better things to come.

Interestingly, almost everyone in the book has a blue coat, including a baby Miss Silver is knitting for. And one of the criminal gang has ‘a blue serge coat’, just like Margot above. Serge is a rough fabric, far more suited to villains than young heiresses: I think Wentworth might have dropped serge in by mistake in the extract above. It is somewhat unlikely in what turns out to be a designer high fashion garment from Paris – and serge would have stood up better to the rain than this one did.

The fur-collared lady in the photograph is the actress Norma Shearer, and the picture is from Kristine’s photostream.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

published 1924
Magic Mountain 1‘…The gentlemen have been shopping?’ he asked, adopting a lighter tone.

‘No, not really,’ Hans Castorp said, ‘that is…’

‘We bought a couple of blankets for my cousin,’ Joachim replied casually.

‘For the rest cure, what with this miserable cold weather. I am supposed to join in for these few weeks.’ Hans Castorp said with a laugh, looking down at the ground.

‘Ah, blankets, rest cure,’ Settembrini said. ‘Yes, yes, yes. I see, I see, I see. Indeed: placet experiri!’ he repeated it with his Italian c; and now, when he took his leave, for they had arrived at the sanatorium, where they were greeted by the limping concierge…

[later that day] When they came back up from their meal, the package of blankets was lying on a chair in Hans Castorp’s room, and he made use of them for the first time. Joachim, as the expert, gave him lessons in the art of wrapping oneself the way they all did it up here, something every novice had to learn right off.
Magic Mountain 4

commentary: After reading Linda Grant’s terrific new novel Dark Circle, which I blogged on yesterday, I decided the moment had finally come to read this book – something I have been vaguely intending to do for more than 30 years. Thomas Mann is a great writer, and I have loved other works by him, but Magic Mountain is 704 pages long in my edition. But with the encouragement of Dark Circle – well, it was now or never.

The book tells the story of a young man who goes to a Swiss sanatorium to visit a cousin with TB. He intends to stay a few weeks, and then finds himself a little ill, and ends up staying there for seven years. The world outside carries on without him, and there are vague intimations of the shattering events of the century.

Magic Mountain begins in the early years of the 20th century, while Grant’s book is set in the late 1940s – but it is obvious that the treatment for TB hadn’t changed in that time: cold and clear air and bedrest were all a doctor could suggest. There are moments when the content is parallel, such as the discussion of lung operations and lung collapse. And both authors have taken the chance to look at a small closed community, and the thoughts of those who are cut off from family, and know they may be dying. Yesterday’s extract featured sheepskin mittens: here we have the special blankets, and the rather cosy-sounding fur-lined sleeping bags.

Magic Mountain 7

It is not as depressing as it probably sounds: the shadow of death does hang over it, and the idea of coming for a visit and getting pulled in to stay forever is fairly horrifying. The text is ambiguous over whether he really needs to stay… and the book in general does a remarkable job in being convincing and realistic, and making you believe this is what the hospital would really be like – but also obviously making points about the world, the characters, the status of someone who perhaps prefers to be out of the world, who fears going back. The passage above shows the early signs that Hans Castorp is settling in for the long haul… Placet experiri is Latin for ‘he likes to experiment.’

It is not an easy read, but I did find it compelling and was very glad I ploughed through all those pages, and there are some very funny and entertaining passages.

However, I have just found to my horror that Mann  ‘recommended that those who wished to understand it should read it through twice’. I don’t think I’ll be doing that.

The colour pictures are from a booklet advertizing a sanatorium.

The patients are all very intrigued by the x-rays that are taken – looking for the shadows on their lungs. The 2nd picture is an early demonstration of the uses of X rays.

Third picture shows the open air system so widely used for TB patients, from a booklet on the subject.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Dress Down Sunday: Dark Circle by Linda Grant

published 2016


Dark Circle

On the floor above, Miriam was screaming that she wouldn’t get undressed. She would not take off her clothes, she wouldn’t take off so much as her shoes if this was what they were going to do to her. ‘And not a chance I’ll take my knickers off.’

She was wearing a cherry-red felt coat and a cherry-red beret pinned gingerly onto the back of her head, not to disarrange her foam of stiff blue-black curls. Her lips were painted with postbox-red lipstick. In this room she looked like a giant strawberry frozen inside an ice cube.

After a short struggle, and a lot of yelling, the girl was led out and settled into her bed by Matron. She appeared wearing a spectacularly vulgar garment, an artificial silk nightdress and negligee covered in pink nylon ruffles. Her breasts without a bra pushed out ahead of her like a pair of off-white cats curled on a sofa. She was holding a scarf and a pair of sheepskin mittens that Matron had issued her with.

Dark Circle

commentary: I love Linda Grant, and she has featured on the blog a lot. This is her new novel, and it is an absolute corker. I read it a while ago but didn’t write about it straightaway, for a reason I will explain shortly, and it has lived in my mind very solidly since then, I keep thinking about it.

The story starts in post-war London, a young brother and sister racing round, living life to the full, with hope and enthusiasm and possibilities. They come from a textbook Jewish family, live in the centre of the city, and are as close as brother and sister can be. So you think it is going to be one kind of book, but then it isn’t. After a brief bright colourful section where they interact with all kinds of current goings-on (post-war fascists, a flower shop, national service) they are both diagnosed with TB and whisked off to a sanatorium in Kent.

The book is a great novel in terms of presenting a number of different characters for us to get to know and understand, to follow their stories. But it also gives an extraordinary picture of life in a sanatorium, I wouldn’t have had the faintest idea what this was like, and I can’t be alone in that. This is just after WW2, and a new treatment, streptomycin, is going to become available for TB – but no-one is certain about it, and there is a very limited supply. This thread slides through the book, and there is an urgency about how to choose who will get it, but we can see it is not going to save most of these people.

The matter-of-fact life at the sanatorium is absolutely horrifying. People were sent there for years ‘five years is considered an effective stay’: people simply dropped out of their real lives. Mothers didn’t see their children. Some patients were abandoned by their families and had no visitors. Miriam and Lenny are among the first NHS patients to come in: most of the others are paying privately. The treatments sound appalling, and completely useless. People had total bedrest, and slept in wards open to the air. There are some very dubious-sounding operations.
To the nurses and medical staff, the patients were always occupying points on a calendar closer or farther away from death.
The patients build their own lives, and it all sounds somewhat like a prisoner-of-war camp, or the ward in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The only thing you can think is ‘it’s not a concentration camp.’ There is a desperate sadness, it is absolutely heart-wrenching, and carries complete conviction – Grant obviously did her research very carefully.

Of course, this tragic reality is the perfect setting for a novel, with the different stories intersecting, with the clash of cultures, with the women’s differing attitudes to their appearances, with the excitement of the arrival of the untrustworthy American – and Grant makes the most of all this. There are discussions of makeup, card schools, a visit to the races, radio and dancing. The reading aloud of books was one of the most compelling strands. There is a weird adventure when two of the patients find out exactly what is going on in a secret separate floor of the hospital. Everyone swaps stories, and there is a very entertaining description of shoplifting.

There are occasional chapters looking at what is happening to the patients’ connections outside, and these all seem very strange and inconsequential, almost too bright, after the flat whiteness of the wards: the reader has become institutionalized too.

One of the things Grant does remarkably well is clothes descriptions, but there isn’t so much in the hospital, just the glimpses of the others outside. I loved this: Lenny’s girlfriend Gina puts on

Dark Circle 3her spring coat which was glazed powder-blue cotton and her best pink crepe dress and her high-heeled shoes and blew on the gold of her cross and polished it with her sleeve and brushed her hair and put it up in a French pleat.
Another young woman on the outside goes swimming in a ‘new two-tone yellow and black suit, which made her look like a wasp’ – in another recent entry there was a black and yellow bathing suit, and I was surprised that the author said ‘that this made her look like some sort of strange animal, perhaps a cross between a chimp and a zebra’ – I’d expected a wasp, as Grant confirms.

I thought this was a wonderful book, one of the best I read last year. I was glad (no spoilers) that the ending was not as harsh as I had feared and half-expected.
The reason I didn’t write about it straightaway was that after finishing it I thought that this might be the moment to read Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann’s enormous novel set in a Swiss sanatorium at the beginning of the 20th century. I thought if I didn’t read it now I never would. And so I have, though it took a while. A blogpost will follow…

Negligee lady is Arlene Dahl – this is my goto photo for this kind of illustration.

Red coat and hat from Kristin’s photostream. Pale coat and dress from the same source.

Friday, 20 January 2017

The Murders of Mrs Austin and Mrs Beale by Jill McGown

published 1991
Murders of Mrs Austin 2
And the jogging suit. Oh, God, the jogging suit. Everything else he possessed was sitting in the washing machine, soaking wet. He’d missed the jogging suit, which was just as well, really. If only he’d missed a sweater and jeans. But no, he had to come back looking as though he was on holiday. He’d seen the look that passed between Lloyd and the doctor. It wasn’t his fault. The colour drained from his face again, but he fought it this time….

Murders of Mrs Austin

Steve had been given accommodation, he had been fed, he had been looked after better than Beale’s mother would have been. He just hadn’t been able to leave. Not that Beale had actually said so, or locked him in or anything.

Beale was introducing him to his solicitor, a thinly handsome fortyish West Indian in an expensive grey suit. Steve frowned. ‘ I don’t get it,’ he said.

Beale sighed. ‘ Steve, if I had let you go last night just after I’d told you about Mrs Austin, what would you have done?’

‘Run,’ said Steve, with feeling.
commentary: Jill McGown truly was one of the greats in crime fiction at the end of the 20th century, and I can’t imagine why she isn’t better known and better-remember – she died in 2007. Her books are intricate and very clever, they have great, believable characters, and wonderful crime plots with excellent clues.

This one sounds as though it is going to be a cozy, with perhaps Mrs A and Mrs B being competing bakers at the WI. Well far from it – as ever McGown’s quiet market towns have all kinds of things going on in them, and the relationships are weird and compelling, and often rather exotic amid banal-seeming trappings. She had a great understanding of human motives and drives.

The opening section is slightly off, because of course we know from the title who the victims are, so it is slightly odd that there is a tension about who died and where and when. But once you get going this plot is a complete pageturner with a most satisfying ending.

She’s a glancing, witty writer - I love lines like this:
[The two heavies] on either side of Steve tensed up. Beale wasn’t happy, and they knew that. You’d swear they were almost human, thought Steve.
‘I shouldn’t by rights be doing this,’ he said, leading the way. ‘But none of the directors has come in this morning.’ No, thought Mickey. There’s a good reason for that [violent deaths], as you are about to find out.
But rather like judging a talent contest, everyone’s second choice won.
As well as the excellent plot, the book contained many fascinating glimpses of its publication date of 1991. A character has a Filofax, and that is worth commenting on. Access to the block of flats is important:
It was odd, talking to a camera and having a wall answer. Lloyd rather wished he had been around in the days of hansom cabs and Sherlock Holmes. He could have called the Great Detective in, and gone to the south of France with Judy while he sorted it all out. ‘Come up,’ said Beale, and the door buzzed, and clicked. The Great Detective would have had his work cut out getting into the bloody building, never mind sorting out what had gone on there.
Lloyd and his colleague and lover Judy are one of the least-annoying couples in crime fiction.

Looking at the lawyer in his expensive suit – Bill Selnes of Mysteries and More is my go-to guy when it comes to lawyers’ clothing and general gents’ nattiness (and various other Clothes in Books areas too, such as practicality and cold-weather gear). I will be interested to hear his verdict on the outfit above.

There’s a couple of other Jill McGown books on the blog – I’m enjoying slowly going through them all.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis

published 2017

Anne Bronte 2

Anne looked at Charlotte trying to turn Heger into the Duke of Zamorna, Branwell imagining he was Northangerland seducing Mrs Robinson, and even at Byron believing the only true love was impossible, taboo and antisocial, and she realised that bad love was a story people got stuck in…

Anne realized the stories she’d been told would make her miserable, if she let them. So she chose to write a different story about love, a story that would help her get past the unhappiness of Thorp Green, and fall back in love with life.

Anne Bronte 3

commentary: I loved Samantha Ellis’s previous book, How to be a Heroine, as you can tell from my fan letter blogpost. I said then
Samantha Ellis likes the same heroines, and books, that Clothes in Books does.
--- which says it all really, doesn’t it? I must have given away half a dozen copies of the book, it was my goto birthday present that year, and all the recipients loved it too.

I also went to see her play, How to Date a Feminist, in London last year – it was a joy: funny and clever and an amazing 2-person production.

So I was delighted to get a review copy of this book, which is about Anne Bronte, the youngest and least-known of the sisters. I was sure I would love it (and I was right) but I realized I was putting off reading it: the reason was that I KNEW I would end up wanting to read Anne Bronte’s books, and probably other works by and about the sisters, and I don’t have time. Well, I’ll just have to find time.

Once I started on Take Courage I finished it in 24 hours, loving every minute. I then watched a recent BBC TV film about the Brontes, To Walk Invisible, which rather split audiences, but which I loved too. (That’s a still from it below.)

Anne Bronte

Anne Bronte is the least famous and often seen as the least talented of the Brontes. But anyone who takes her seriously and looks clearly at the family story can’t but be impressed and grabbed by her. Like many people, I loved Emily and Wuthering Heights first, then took up Charlotte and her (excellent) novels, and then later realized just how interesting Anne was too.

Although people talked of her as poor dear Anne, she was a lot braver and more grounded than her sisters. And her books have been unfairly overshadowed – they are more raw and (as Ellis argues) more feminist than her sisters’ works. And always, once you start looking at the facts of their lives, you find out more, and question your assumptions, and start thinking about them again.

Ellis is definitely a character in her book – she tells the story of her interest in Anne and her researches, and tells a little about her own life as she does so. As with How to be a Heroine, she makes the book readable and entertaining, but also serious and properly researched and footnoted.

She does a great job of looking at the decline and disaster that was Branwell Bronte’s life. And her final description of Anne’s death at the age of 29 had me in floods of tears.

My conclusion is simple: Anyone with any interest in the Brontes should read this book.

Jane Eyre (and her wedding outfit) provided an early entry on the blog. Daphne du Maurier’s The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte is a great read. And Antonia Forest’s YA novel Peter’s Room – about some young people who copy the Bronte’s fantasy play – is a wonderful book, and a great favourite here on the blog.